Ask Bill Bloomfield why he lavished $5.8 million on an assortment of candidates in this year's elections and the retired businessman brings up the billboard he and his dad had erected on Santa Monica Boulevard back in 1987.
Visible to thousands of motorists heading east each day along one of the Westside's busiest arteries, the sign keeps a running tally of smoking-related deaths annually and flips back to zero at midnight every New Year's Eve.
Bloomfield, then a young executive in his family's successful coin-operated laundry machine business, found that putting up the money for the billboard gave him his first taste of "the importance of getting involved, the start of taking on sacred cows."
At first, getting involved mainly meant supporting favorite charities and Republican candidates, but over the last few years it evolved as Bloomfield grew disenchanted with partisan politics and frustrated with the state of public education. He supported redistricting reform and the open primary.
As someone who is "pretty liberal " on social issues, he said he became concerned about "the direction of the Republican Party" and switched his registration to "no party preference" in 2011. The following year, Bloomfield, who lives in Manhattan Beach, drew wide attention by spending $7.5 million of his own money on a challenge to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills).
This election season, he opted not to run again and concentrated on another path for political players: supporting candidates. Bloomfield, 64, and his wife, Susan, see themselves as a "tiny counterweight" to special interests and spend part of their fortune on candidates they believe will help improve government by easing partisan gridlock, put public schools on a sounder footing, or both.
And the Bloomfields plan to keep going, even if they haven't figured out yet just where. He said he probably won't run for office again but didn't rule out an eventual bid by his wife, saying in a recent interview that "she'd make a great candidate."
"We submit we're in it for the right reasons," Bloomfield said of the couple's burgeoning political involvement, which he likens to his family's tradition of supporting charities through its foundation. "We want to leave the world a better place than we found it."
They decry what they see as cynicism about their motives and point out that, unlike public employee unions or corporations and wealthy individuals directly affected by the Legislature's or Congress' votes, they have nothing personally to gain.
They talk about the need for campaign finance reform (Bloomfield notes he is on the board of California Common Cause) but say they will continue to put money behind candidates and causes as long as the rules allow it.
"We do what we can in the very unfair system that we've got," he said.
"You can make a difference if you can develop a thick enough skin," added Susan, 50, who said she had disliked politics, because of the negativity that marks many campaigns, before meeting Bill.
She said he soon inspired her to get involved, and she gave up a flourishing career as head of skin-care firm Neutrogena to devote all her time to the couple's charitable and political pursuits.
In this year's elections, that included donating to, or spending on behalf of, 13 candidates for offices ranging from water boards to governor. In addition to Bill's largesse, Susan kicked in $69,200, bringing the couple's total to $5.85 million.
Derek Cressman, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate and a candidate for secretary of state in this year's primary, said "it's fair to say his giving is not motivated by any immediate financial self-interest in the way that many other interest groups are."
But he is concerned about wealthy individuals, even those with altruistic intentions, having "an outsize voice" in elections because of the money they can spend.
"I would like to see him be a little more vocal about his views [advocating campaign finance reforms] and perhaps use reform as a litmus test" in choosing which candidates to support, Cressman said.
Democrats who received the Bloomfields' support this year included state Assembly candidates Autumn Burke, Armando Gomez and Steve Glazer.
The Bloomfields spent almost $216,000 in the June 3 primary on former Republican Dan Schnur, an independent who failed to make the fall ballot for secretary of state.
They put $169,000 into helping Republican Neel Kashkari advance to the Nov. 4 general election but stayed out of the race in the fall. Bill Bloomfield said their goal had been to stop the highly conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) from getting to the fall ballot.
But their biggest outlays came in their independent spending: activities undertaken outside a candidate's campaign. (Unlike contributions to candidates, there are no limits on outside spending.) According to notices filed with the California secretary of state, the Bloomfields spent more than $3.5 million trying to elect former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck as state superintendent of public instruction — he lost —and around $1.5 million on Santa Monica-Malibu school board member Ben Allen's successful run for the state Senate.
Lindsay Bubar, consultant for the campaign of Sandra Fluke, Allen's opponent, believes Bloomfield's spending made the difference in the general election contest between two Democrats who had raised roughly the same amounts for their campaigns, about $1 million apiece.
"What's really concerning is that one person is able to spend so much money to influence an election," said Bubar, whose candidate lost to Allen by 20 percentage points.
Bubar, who also managed Waxman's successful reelection campaign against Bloomfield, said he struck her as being "a smart, sincere guy, who was very clear about wanting to take the partisan piece out of politics."
"But it's important to look at where he spends his money," Bubar added, citing his support of a 2012 ballot measure that would have barred labor unions from participating in political campaigns but held no such sanctions for corporate interests.
As for supporting Allen, Bloomfield said he had felt it was important to "level the playing field" because Fluke had earned national name recognition after Rush Limbaugh called her a slut for advocating access to birth control during a congressional hearing.
The Bloomfields credit just-retired Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky with calling Allen to their attention.
Bill Bloomfield had phoned Yaroslavsky, a longtime fixture in Westside Democratic politics, shortly after Waxman announced early this year that he would not seek reelection. Bloomfield suggested he wasn't going to run again but thought Yaroslavsky should and offered to support him.
"I almost fell off my chair," recalled Yaroslavsky, a longtime friend and political ally of Waxman. Yaroslavsky decided not to run but wanted to know more about Bloomfield, who had become friendly with Waxman after their election battle ended.
Over breakfast at Nate 'n Al in Beverly Hills, Yaroslavsky found Bloomfield to be "a very likeable guy. He's very serious, he's very focused."
Yaroslavsky also talked up Allen, whom he has known for 20 years.
"Zev was quite effusive," Bloomfield recalled. So he and Susan looked further into Allen and decided he was their kind of candidate: smart, with a lot of integrity, broad support from local leaders, an interest in education and pragmatic enough to work across the political aisle to solve problems.
"It wouldn't have matterered who his opponent was," Susan Bloomfield said.